Ban it or regulate it, the debate over child labour seems unending. No wonder, therefore, that the NDA government’s decision to amend the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act has evoked passionate response, with child rights activists claiming that it is not enough. While the original Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 brought by the UPA government banned employment of children below 14 years in “only 18 hazardous industries”, the amendment cleared by the Modi cabinet bans children below 18 from any hazardous industry.
Though it allows children below 14 years to work in certain non-hazardous settings such as family-owned enterprises and the entertainment industry, it also stipulates that this should be only after school hours and on holidays. This aligns itself with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 which makes education a fundamental right for all children in the age group 6-14 years.
In addition, the amendment stipulates stricter punishment for employers violating the conditions. While a parent will not be penalised for the first violation, an employer would be liable for punishment at the first instance. The penalty for employers has been increased from the existing Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000. A subsequent offence for employing any child or adolescent in an illegal industry will result in a minimum imprisonment of a year, extendable up to three.
The fact of children working in all kinds of occupations remains one of India’s worst-kept secrets. Tinkering with a law will not eliminate what appears to be an intractable social problem. Be it the pint-sized chaiwallahs at railway stations, shoe polishers on pavements, waiters, domestic workers, agricultural labourers—working children are a common sight. The appalling reality is that many children bear the burden of earning a livelihood and supporting their family. It is the only way they can survive and, perhaps, attain the rudiments of an education.
Child labour is by no means a desired situation. No child should voluntarily or forcefully be pushed into employment at the cost of his education or even childhood. In principle, a way has to be found so that all children can have a childhood—to learn how to read and write, to play, to sing, to dance. If that is the vision, steps have to be taken to fulfil it.
The problem in India, however, is complex. When it comes to children—child labour, protection, welfare, and rights—it would be silly to paint it in black or white. The stakeholders and situations at play are subjective and numerous. State machinery and institutions, parents and dependent siblings, family circumstances and structure, societal and class norms each has a say and role in the life of a child.
Against this backdrop, a blanket ban on child labour that will ensure the child’s right to childhood is protected will only drive the problem under cover. Irrespective of the earlier ban on children under 14 years of age working in hazardous industries, hundreds of them continue to work in factories making firecrackers and matchboxes, and in the carpet industry. Worse still, the ban has made little difference to children employed in mines where entire families are virtually bonded to contractors.
There is no pat solution to end child labour. That is evident after years of effort by many NGOs as well as the government. Giving children the right to be educated is a very small step. It has to be followed up with specific enabling tools such as accessible and affordable schools, subsidised books and uniforms, transport and other special assistance.
Thomas is associate professor at Barkatullah University